New CDC overdose estimates are nothing to celebrate
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Last month, the CDC announced a provisional decline in the number of drug overdose deaths. Though some might have cheered at the news, it’s a dangerous celebration. Not only are the numbers misleading, but by celebrating premature victories, we risk stalling the momentum to end the addiction crisis. If we don’t act now, we are complicit in the epidemic that killed over 70,000 people just last year.

The real tragedy: there are solutions to resolve this crisis. Through a massive overhaul of current policy and investment into recovery infrastructure, we can develop innovative initiatives, ones that have already proven to work. The CARE Act, sponsored by Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsBaltimore unveils plaques for courthouse to be named after Elijah Cummings GOP leaders encourage retiring lawmakers to give up committee posts Pelosi taps Virginia Democrat for key post on economic panel MORE (D-Md.) and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe Memo: Sanders-Warren battle could reshape Democratic primary Environmental activists interrupt Buttigieg in New Hampshire Pence to visit Iowa days before caucuses MORE (D-Mass.), invests $100 billion over the next 10 years – $10 billion per year – into states and communities for treatment, prevention, harm reduction, recovery support services, and continuing care. It’s modeled after the Ryan White Act which is often credited for curbing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1990s.

The problem with the statistics released by the CDC is that they divert attention from the severity of the crisis. Jim Hall at Nova Southeastern University said it best: “The opioid crisis is in early remission—but is at high risk of relapse.”


We cannot risk a relapse. Right now the data is still provisional, which according to the CDC could be “incomplete [as] causes of death may be pending investigation.” But if the data sets hold, we’re looking at a national decrease from approximately 72,300 to 69,100. That’s about a 3,200 person decrease from the year prior in overdose deaths. As the Wall Street Journal, states, “Annual drug deaths will fall for the first time since 1990, when overdoses killed about 8,400 people.”

However, the Journal also warns, “The death rate remains swollen by powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl, and… the rise of methamphetamines and related deaths remains a worrisome trend.” Current policy fails to address the most dangerous culprit in the death toll: the continued and escalating use of fentanyl by drug users.

Fentanyl analogs are constantly changing—and the next analog could bring a new surge in deaths, turning this entire map upside down. And while we’re seeing the beginning decline of overdose deaths from “natural and semisynthetic opioids” (i.e. prescription opioids), it doesn’t mean that hard stops caused by misinterpreted prescribing guidelines are working. We’re likely just seeing that population move over to the synthetic category where Fentanyl overdoses continue to grow, as described in the American Journal of Public Health.

Likewise, there has been a significant increase in amphetamine-related deaths, which authorities like Jon DeLena, second-in-command at the DEA’s New England office, fear could “hit us like fentanyl did.” If we don’t speed up our efforts and funding to get evidence-based systems in place to combat the crisis, the overdose numbers could just as quickly spike.

When the CARE Act was introduced, it was endorsed by over 200 organizations in the medical, health, and addiction services fields. As Paul Earley, MD, DFASAM, President of the American Society of Addiction Medicine states, “The CARE Act would provide critical resources needed now and over the next decade to strengthen our addiction treatment infrastructure and expand access to treatments proven to save lives. … taking bold steps to help ensure current and future generations of Americans receive the addiction treatment they need and deserve.”


We have had nearly two decades of skyrocketing deaths. And the most prominent government interventions have not only failed to tackle the problem—but might have unintentionally heightened drug overdoses with the over-management of opioid prescriptions, pushing many into the use of street-bought heroin, and internet-supplied fentanyl. Finally, Congress has a bill providing a solution which can work.

If you are a U.S. senator and you are not co-sponsoring the CARE Act, you are playing Russian Roulette with the lives of millions currently suffering. And if you are a U.S. senator running for president—such as Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Sanders defends vote against USMCA | China sees weakest growth in 29 years | Warren praises IRS move on student loans Klobuchar on missing campaigning for impeachment: 'I can do two things at once' MORE (D-Colo.)—and you are putting political competition before sound policy, shame on you, and shame on your presidential campaigns. Anyone running for president should be putting their full weight and support behind the CARE Act, regardless of who is sponsoring it.

Because a good bill is a good bill. And the CARE Act supports many of the initiatives which we have seen succeed in states where the declines are worth celebrating. States like Rhode Island (the only state to see a decline two years in a row) where naloxone, medication assisted treatment, peer recovery supports, and innovative programs are working.

We can’t get sidetracked by a little bit of good data. We’ve barely had $5 billion in national investment to combat the crisis to date. By comparison, in 2018, we put $58 billion dollars a month toward defense spending, though the estimated 2018 overdose death toll is still higher than all US military casualties in the Vietnam and Iraq wars combined.

That’s certainly nothing to write home about. Although we have experienced small victories in pockets across the country like Rhode Island, and like Ohio where there’s a projected 24 percent decrease from last year in overdose deaths, we need to pass instrumental policy to increase resources and national investment to significantly decrease overdose deaths in this country.

The CARE Act triples down on the progress made in communities who are effectively combatting the crisis. To turn that bill into a piece of political grandstanding not only undermines the efforts of such communities, it calls into question the integrity of those senators who are running for president who refuse to co-sponsor the legislation. If you can’t get behind reducing overdose deaths in our country on a massive scale, you don’t deserve the right to run for president and you certainly don’t deserve my vote.

Ryan Hampton, an activist in recovery from heroin addiction and author of "American Fix: Inside the Opioid Addiction Crisis — and How to End It," is the founder of the non-profit advocacy organization The Voices Project.